The Influence of Early Ethnographic Conservation in Alaska

The Objects Specialty Group Postprints. Vol. 10 Proceedings of the Objects Specialty Group Session.   American Institute for Conservation 31st Annual Meeting, Arlington, Virginia. June 8, 2003. 

The Influence of Early Ethnographic Conservation in Alaska.

By Scott Carrlee and Ellen Carrlee

*note: 2009 update at the end


The state of Alaska spans a terrain as wide as the continental U.S. and occupies one-fifth the landmass of the lower 48 states, yet contains a population only slightly larger than the District of Columbia.  Almost 60% of these people live in the three largest cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau.  The struggles of a small population in a vast land have always colored the history of the state.  Isolation has always been an important factor in the geographic and cultural development of Alaska.  A visitor behind the scenes in many small, remote Alaskan museums may be surprised, however, to find unusually good collections care, awareness and respect for preventive conservation, a long history of contact with conservators, and a sophisticated attitude toward the role of the museum in the community.  Certain key events contributed to those successes.

Civic consciousness paired with financial boom times influenced museum development in Alaska in the second half of the 20th century.  When statehood came to Alaska on October 18, 1959, there were only six museums in Alaska.  In 1967, the Purchase Centennial celebrated the bargain once called “Seward’s Folly.”  Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, the equivalent of $84 million today.  A federal block grant to the State of Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission was distributed throughout the state for community projects.  Many communities identified a need for local museums, and the number of Alaskan museums doubled during the events surrounding the centennial celebration.  In 1968, oil was discovered on the North Slope.  Construction began on the oil pipeline in 1974, and by 1975 the economy of state had doubled.  The first oil was pumped in 1977.  The Alaskan Canadian Highway (often called the Alcan Highway), built during WWII by the Army Corps of Engineers in response to Japanese attacks on American soil, underwent upgrades and improvements in the 1970s to support pipeline construction.  Improvements led to a boom in adventure tourism as well as opening up the interior to further settlement.  Alaska’s population grew by a third during that decade.  The 1976 United States Bicentennial celebrations raised national consciousness about history and the importance of preserving artifacts.  Many museums nationwide began to implement preservation policies and hire conservators.  Cruise ship tourism in Alaska was steadily on the rise in the 1980s, but exploded in the 1990s as a result of the Gulf War and American fears of traveling abroad.  By the end of the decade, tourism in the state increased by threefold.  

Today there are more than 60 museums and cultural centers in Alaska.  Even with the advent of “industrial tourism” the typical small Alaskan museum struggles to keep its doors open.  Admission tickets pay for only a fraction of the operating expenses, and the meager staff are often unpaid volunteers.  Professional training is rare.  The exhibits of these small museums can be hard to distinguish from the curio shops on every town’s Dock Street, hawking pseudo-Alaskan antiques and featuring bear skins and moose antlers on the walls.  Old-fashioned museum cases are over-filled with artifacts and memorabilia, often with a yellowed label typed on an index card.  

Behind the scenes, however, collections care, with an emphasis on preventive conservation, is surprisingly up-to-date.  Shelves are lined with closed-cell polyurethane foam, windows and lights have UV filters, gloves are worn, and objects tend to be securely housed.  The staff generally understands conservation and has specific ideas about what a conservator can do for them.  Indeed, 15 museums in Alaska (nearly 25%) have had Conservation Assessment Programs to date.  In 1990, during her time as conservator at the Alaska State Museum, Helen Alten conducted a conservation survey of the state.  She noted that over half the museums which responded had been visited by a conservator.  Over 80% stored their collections in acid-free materials and nearly 90% regularly sought conservation and preservation advice from the Alaska State Museum.  Today, there appears to be a unified conservation philosophy among the small museums of Alaska.  It is based on good fundamental collections care, preventive conservation and contact with professional conservators for advice and treatment when necessary.  This is remarkable, considering a grand total of only four conservators ever held permanent positions in Alaska before the year 2000.  What is the origin of this preventive conservation legacy?  Why did it stick so well in these museums?

The first big wave of conservation appears to have hit Alaska in the year 1975.  Bethune Gibson, head of the Smithsonian’s Anthropology Conservation Lab, was invited to the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka to perform what seems to be the first general conservation survey done in the state.  Her report outlined the basic conservation condition of the collection, illuminated the environmental factors that were creating problems, and made recommendations for improvements.  It appears likely that her report, and the connection with the Smithsonian’s Anthropology Conservation Lab, led to the grant obtained by the Sheldon Museum to hire Toby Raphael as an ethnographic conservator for three months in the summer of 1975.  Raphael was studying at the George Washington University ethnographic and archaeological training program headed by Carolyn Rose, and internships at the Anthropology Conservation Lab were part of the program.  

Conservation treatments carried were carried out in a makeshift lab in the staff lounge of the Sheldon Jackson college library.  In his report at the end of the summer, Raphael noted that a large percentage of his time was devoted to the Eskimo mask collection since it was considered one of the most valuable in the museum.  

During the same period of time, one Alaskan was becoming increasingly interested in preserving collections.  Mary Pat Wyatt was the Curator of Collections at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.  She was also working on a master’s thesis, “Problems in Conservation of Alaskan Ethnographic Material,” when she met Smithsonian conservator James Silberman.  Silberman was traveling with the “Far North” exhibition, a large exhibit covering 2,000 years of Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut culture that had been organized by the Smithsonian Institution.  He encouraged Wyatt to pursue an internship in conservation at the Smithsonian.  She contacted Bethune Gibson and organized an internship year at the Anthropology Conservation Lab starting in August of 1975.  This internship at the Smithsonian formed the backbone of her conservation education.  Wyatt returned to Alaska in 1976 to take a nine-month conservation position at the Alaska State Museum funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  This was the first conservation position at any Alaskan museum, and remains the only conservation position in any institution in Alaska, despite the fact that both the University of Alaska Museum at Fairbanks and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art have considerably larger collections.  

Wyatt converted a darkroom in the basement of the Alaska State Museum in Juneau into a conservation laboratory and even managed to find a fume hood that is still in operation today.  Her primary concern, however, was outreach.  She visited 15 museums and cultural agencies around the state where she gave presentations and workshops on general collections care.  The following year the conservation position continued to be funded with another grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as a National Museum Act grant.  The focus of the lab continued to be statewide outreach.  Museums and cultural agencies around the state were invited to send objects to objects to Juneau for conservation treatment.  Three regional workshops were held in Juneau, Fairbanks, and Homer with a total of 68 participants.  Topics covered included grant writing, exhibits development, collections care, and preservation.      

In 1977, John Turney of the Valdez Heritage Center met Matilda Wells of the National Museum Act, who put him in touch with Caroline Keck of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Conservation.  Arrangements for student interns to work in Alaska were discussed, but did not materialize.  

In the summer of 1978, four graduate students from the George Washington University/ Smithsonian Conservation program came to Alaska to do conservation work.  The National Museum Act provided the funding and Mary Pat Wyatt coordinated the work.  The four conservators were Alice Hoveman, Melba Myers, Susan Paterson, and Thurid Clark.  They worked in teams of two at four museums for one month each.  The four museums were the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the Baranov Museum on Kodiak Island, the Sheldon Museum in Haines, and again the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka.  In addition to treating the objects most in need of conservation at each museum, the teams also wrote reports providing recommendations for general conservation care of the collections.  The communities were impressed with the Smithsonian conservators, and there was local press coverage of the projects.  One of the students, Alice Hoveman, returned to Alaska after graduation to volunteer her time at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka.  The following year, Hoveman would take the position of Conservator at the Alaska State Museum following the departure of Mary Pat Wyatt.  Wyatt returned several years later to become the curator at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, as position she held for almost 20 years.  

The State Conservator position was financed through grants until 1980, when a permanent full-time position was funded by the Legislature.  The nascent Conservation Services Program also had political implications.  Juneau was constantly striving to prove itself of service to the rest of the state in order to fend off attempts to move the capital closer to Anchorage.  Statewide outreach became a major mission of the Alaska State Museum.  Alice Hoveman presented a talk at the 1981 American Institute for Conservation Services Program.  According to Hoveman, 

“There existed a serious lack of understanding concerning preventive care for collections; i.e., inadequately controlled environments, limited security, and improper handling, storage, and exhibit techniques.  These conservation problems are complicated by the physical isolation and remoteness of Alaskan museums and the limited financial resources many Alaskan museum personnel are faced with.” (Hoveman, 1981)

The approach included on-site assessments, environmental monitoring kits and conservation literature available on loan, assistance for emergencies and disasters, and individual treatments for objects stable enough to be shipped to Juneau.  Hoveman also initiated the Museum Wise Guide, a booklet about collections care for Alaskan materials which included appendicies listing conservation suppliers and conservation-related organizations.  This booklet, funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum Services, has been distributed free of charge to Alaskan museums and cultural centers since 1985.  It is now in its revised second printing funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services and is available on the internet.  Alice stayed in the position until February 1987, when Helen Alten took the position.  

In advertising jargon, people speak of certain campaigns having “legs,”  meaning that they achieve a longevity that goes beyond the initial appearance of the message in the media.  The conservation message that was carried by the core group of early ethnographic conservators in Alaska had “legs.”  The message seems to have gotten through and stuck with many of the smaller museums that had early conservation contact.  The message was carried on even with numerous staff changes.  We may never know why this is so, but a few ideas can be postulated.  

First, all of the early conservation participants during the formative years were trained at the same place, the George Washington University program led by Carolyn Rose, and/or the Anthropology Conservation Lab at the Smithsonian.  Second, the message was simple and effective.  It emphasized preventing damage and the fundamentals of good collections care, not the treatment of artifacts.  The concepts presented were meant to be understood by staff without specific conservation training.  Indeed, it may be that the museum workers lacking professional training were more receptive to this message.  Some of the larger, better-funded institutions in the state have not made conservation a priority, even today.  Third, the plans and recommendations could be carried out in the absence of continual conservator input.  The conservators came, but no one knew when they might return.  

Ethnographic conservation at its core is neither an art nor a science but rather a philosophy.  It is a philosophy firmly rooted in preventive conservation, and distinct from traditional fine arts conservation that is rooted in individual treatments.  The ethnographic conservators who studied at the George Washington/Smithsonian program were trained to care for large and diverse collections, to do the most good for the most artifacts with the resources available, and to look at the big picture before considering individual treatments.  

According to the National Needs Assessment Survey conducted by IMS in 1992, 75% of U.S. museums had a budget under $250,000 and are defined as small museums.  Most of these museums, like those in Alaska, do not have a conservator on staff.  Yet these museums house the majority of our cultural heritage.  Individual conservation treatments save individual pieces, often the spectacular and priceless ones.  But for the bulk of our historical material, it is the unspectacular realm of preventive conservation that will carry our treasures, great and small, into the future.  

Richard Beauchamp spoke at a museum workshop in 1976.  In his talk, he quoted Canadian conservator Phil Ward, and the words have great strength today as well: “Only the material specimens of humans and natural history are indisputable; they are the raw materials of history, the undeniable facts, the truth about our past.  Conservation is the means by which we preserve them.”


Alten, H. 1993.  Results of the 1990 Alaska State-wide Conservation Survey.  Western Association of Art Conservators Newsletter.  15(3): 29.

Alaska State Museum.  1984.  Alaska Museums in the 80s: a Profile.  Juneau: Alaska State Museum.  

Beauchamp, Richard.  1996.  Unpublished talk delivered at the Museum Institute, Alaska State Museum, Juneau.  

Hoveman, A.R. 1981.  The Alaska State Museum Conservation Services Program.  American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works preprints of the papers presented at the ninth annual meeting Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 27 April- 3 May, 1981.  Washington D.C.: American Institute for Conservation. 82-85.

Hoveman, A.R. 1985.  The Conservation Wise Guide.  Juneau: Alaska State Museum.  

Institute for Museum Services. 1992.  National Needs Assessment of Small, Emerging, Minority and Rural Museums in the United States.  A Report to Congress, September 1992.  Washington D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office.  

*UPDATE 2009

There are now thought to be closer to 80 museums and cultural centers in Alaska.  Some are new, and some small ones are just lately coming on the radar of outreach services at the Alaska State Museum.

Additional CAP assessments have been done in Alaska, perhaps at the rate of 2-3 per year, making he percentage of museums with assessments closer to 30% in 2009.


2001-2003? Melinda McPeek (2000-2001 Pre-program conservation intern, National Museum of the American Indian when Scott Carrlee and Ellen Carrlee had worked there) Museum of the Aleutians, Unalaska. Collections Manager.  Educational background in anthropology and art history, continued on in the museum field as a collections manager with an ongoing interest in conservation.

2002 Lara Kaplan (student, University of Delaware/Winterthur Conservation Program) Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka.  Birchbark canoe project, summer internship.

2001-2004? Sean Charette (don’t know his full conservation background, seems he went on to do work at the Getty and the Freer/Sackler) Museum of the Aleutians, Unalaska. Collections Manager.

2004 Dana Senge (student, Buffalo State Conservation Program) Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center and Museum, Bethel.  Collection care project, summer internship.

2007 Dana Senge (2006 graduate of Buffalo State Conservation Program) Baranov Museum, Kodiak.  Baidarka treatment project.  Sole proprietor, DKS Conservation in Seattle.

2007 Janelle Matz (2007 graduate of the University of Northumbria Preventive Conservation Program) Manager of the Contemporary Art Bank for the Alaska State Council for the Arts beginning in 2007. Had long been a collections manager at the Anchorage Museum, and had done some conservation treatments there as part of her work.   Had some early formal training…perhaps a Smithsonian internship?  Sole proprietor of ArtCare?

2007 Dana Senge (2006 graduate of Buffalo State Conservation Program) Baranof Museum, Kodiak.  Baidarka project.  Two weeks in March. Sole proprietor, DKS Conservation in Seattle.

In 2007, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art established a conservation position.  It was filled by Monica Shah, who grew up in Anchorage and received a Master’s of Science degree from the University of Delaware/ Winterthur Museum conservation training program in 1999 with a specialization in Ethnographic and Archaeological Objects.  Prior to accepting the position, Monica had run a private conservation business in Anchorage for several years.  In summer 1998, Monica, Ellen Carrlee, and Scott Carrlee all worked together in the lab of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in the Bronx, New York.

2007 Molly Gleeson (student, UCLA/Getty Museum Conservation Program) Alaska State Museum, Juneau and Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka. Basketry project.  Summer internship, presented paper at 2007 ICOM-CC Triennial in New Delhi, co-written by Samantha Springer, Teri Rofkar and Janice Criswell; also presented at the 2008 AIC conference.

2007 Samantha Springer (student, U. of Delaware/Winterthur Conservation Program) 2007 ASM, Juneau. Alaska State Museum, Juneau and Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka. Basketry project.  Summer internship, presented paper at 2007 ICOM-CC Triennial in New Delhi, co-written by Samantha Springer, Teri Rofkar and Janice Criswell; also presented at the 2008 AIC conference.

2008 Dave Harvey (apprentice trained, Professional Associate in AIC) Assessment of the Rapuzzi Collection for the National Parks Service.  Several days in fall 2008.  At the time, worked for Griswold and Associates in Los Angeles. 

2009 Jennifer Dennis (student, Buffalo State Conservation Program) Baranov Museum and the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak.  Summer internship.


1992 Vera Beaver-Bricken Espinola advised on treatment of Russian Icons in the Aleutians?  Published biography indicates she received a B.I.S. in Russian studies from George Mason University and an M.A. in museum studies with a concentration in ethnographic and archeological object conservation from George Washington University. She interned in the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution. Fluent in Russian, she received an International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) grant to study Soviet conservation techniques in Moscow, Novgorod, and Leningrad in 1980. A conservator in private practice in St. Petersburg, Florida, she has worked for museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, Hillwood, and the Timken Gallery, and for churches and private collectors as well as on exhibits, legal, insurance, and environmental problems concerning Russian icons and objects.

1998-2008? Cynthia Lawrence. Icon restoration project of Pribolof Islands, funded through restitution money from department of defense?

2001 John R. Kjelland (AIC member, in business as a furniture conservator since 1972.) Worked on the 46-foot historic Brunswick bar at the Valdez Museum.

2003-2007 Emily Ramos (1992 Library Conservation degree from Columbia University) Private conservation business in Anchorage, mainly working with the Rasmuson Library & Archives at Anchorage Museum. Managed the Contemporary Art Bank for the Alaska State Council for the Arts from 2005-2007.  Left Alaska for the job at the University of Berkeley Library system in 2007.2005 Tram Vo (2001 graduate of U. of Delaware/Winterthur Conservation Program) working at the UAF archives with Ann Foster to do an assessment of their photo collection.  Tram Vo Art Conservation, Los Angeles.

2009 Jennifer McGlinchey (student, Buffalo State Conservation Program) specializing in photographs, working with the Alaska State Historical Library and Alaska State Archives, also to travel around the state as part of  ARC (Archives Rescue Corps) and ASHRAB (Alaska State Historic Records Advisory Board) Summer internship.

2009 Grace White (2002 MA paper conservation, Northumbia University, England) Worked at Eagle Historical Society, UAF, and Barrow February-March 2009 to gain experience for Antarctica.


2 Responses to The Influence of Early Ethnographic Conservation in Alaska

  1. Helen Alten says:

    I came to Alaska in May 1989. There had been a 2 year gap between Alice Hoveman and me. The position had been eliminated. It was reinstated because the small museums throughout the state lobbied heavily for it. They felt it was necessary to them. So my position was defined as primarily one of serving the outreach needs of the small museums and secondarily serving the state’s collections. I was in the position until November 1994, when I was offered the opportunity to start a conservation outreach service to the Upper Midwest. There was another long gap (1 1/2 or 2 years) between my leaving and the commencement of my successor, again because of politics and funding. Again, the small museums insisted there be a conservator in the state.

    Because I was a trained archaeological conservator (I had studied three years at the Institute of Archaeology in London and worked on waterlogged material in York, England), we began to advertise conservation services for wet site materials while I was there.

    In the first year, from May 1989 to May 1990, the conservator (me):
    Answered 88 (approximately 35 hours) Reference Requests
    Surveyed 612 (not including 2 traveling shows) Objects
    Treated 56 Objects
    Supervised 182 Volunteer Hours
    Provided 9 workshops and lectures (1 to 5 days in length)

    By the last year I was in Juneau these numbers had increased exponentially (I had spent much of the first year cleaning up piles of paper and backlog artifacts in the lab). I restarted the ASM summer internship program and brought in two students from Cooperstown who cleaned the totem poles outside Centennial Hall. It would be nice to add their names to the list you are compiling, as well as the name of my successor, who was between Scott and me.

  2. Helen Alten says:

    Also of note, Alice met me at AIC and told me her former job would be opening up again. That is how I found out about it. She strongly encouraged me to apply, since I was already comfortable working in isolation and on ethnographic materials.

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